Note: Closed in early 2015. I guess he couldn’t get many customers after all…
Cafe Ellington was opened in June 2012 by the warm and chatty Onodera-san, a retired apparel merchant. It’s a small, non-smoking cafe open from 3pm-10pm, with a simple drinks menu of coffee, tea, beer, whiskey and sherry. The shape is a bit odd with some rather too-large tables making it a but cluttered, but the coffee is good and the speakers excellent.
Onodera-san doesn’t keep a huge collection of vinyl in the place, only about 300 at a time. He rotates the play list bringing from his collection at home, mostly standard jazz with nothing too “heavy”. He was playing a wonderful Roland Hanna/George Mraz duo album when I visited recently. Onodera-san hasn’t put up a website or used any social media to promote the place so the cafe is not well known, even among some Asagaya residents. It’s a relaxing spot for an afternoon coffee or early drink so I hope he builds the customer base up.
Station: JR Asagaya – Chuo, Sobu Lines
Exit: South Exit
Distance from station: 2 minutes
Easy to find after coming out the South Exit.
Jazz Bar Gugan is a small bar in the east side of Tokyo, near both the Ochanomizu and Jimbocho areas. It was opened about 8 years ago by the friendly Yamamoto-san. You wouldn’t think it possible in such a small bar but there is live music once a twice a month. Yamamoto-san has a big collection of CDs (he was playing some live Wes Montgomery when I was last there) and quite a lot of whiskey. It’s a great place to stop by for a couple of drinks after some dinner or shopping in Jimbocho or Kanda.
(“Gugan” is a song by famous local pianist Yamashita Yosuke)
Root Down moved down the street just 30 meters from it’s original spot, it’s now
Root Down is worthy of its funky name. (For those who don’t know look up the song “Root Down” by Jimmy Smith.) It’s a small bar opened about eight years ago by the very friendly Yoshikawa-san. The place is dark but cozy with several thousand records and CDs, and two speakers that just..I don’t have the technical audio vocabulary to describe how good these speakers sound. When you sit at the bar, the speakers are up high behind you meaning the sound comes down and surrounds you from the back. Listening to Ba obby Hutcherson record there, the sound of his vibes was like nothing else.
Double extra points for the brass plaque next to the bar with a quote from Sam Cooke. Yoshikawa-san plays a lot of different styles of jazz to please all kinds of tastes, all on vinyl, and his happy to talk about the music despite the late-night atmosphere. Check his Twitter feed for a real-time update of what’s being played. Root Down is dark and expensive so is best experienced late at night for an extended drinks session. Cash only. See pics of Root Down over at Tokyo Jazz Joints.
Cygnus is the sister club to Aries in Ueno but a bit more upscale. Live shows three times a night, almost always local vocalists. A bit heavy on the jazz standards for my tastes but always high quality and a popular spot in Ginza.
‘Modern Jazz’ Players Bar R started in June 2022 in the existing Players Bar R, with a bit of a complicated back story, but basically now is open three times a week as a vinyl jazz spot and is a must visit both for jazz fans with a deeper interest in audio equipment, but also new fans who may be unfamiliar with the jazz cafe and bar culture in Japan.
Owner Tuskamoto-san, like many small business owners, faced many challenges as the pandemic hit in 2020, considering ideas of how to keep the bar open during very difficult economic times. Over the years he has been friends with several of the regular customers at nearby Jazz Bar Charmant, Tokyo’s oldest remaining jazz spot open since 1955. Upon hearing the news that Charmant would sadly be closing its doors, Tsukamoto-san along with Charmant regulars Mr. Sakashita and Mr. Hayasaka decided to refurbish ‘R’ into a more jazz oriented listening bar, a place where the spirit of Charmant could be carried on and the customers could hopefully move to make their new jazz bar home.
Sakashita-san brought his own audio system from home to install along with 1500+ records, while the others set up the new decor and shop ‘guidelines’. Unlike the old style jazz kissaten of the 1960s and 70s which often had a ‘no talking’ rule in the daytime and could be very forbidding spaces for young customers, women and new jazz fans, ‘R’ makes clear that not only are novice jazz fans welcome, the staff are eager to take questions and requests. Talking about the music is a main goal of all the staff, and customers can even bring in a record or two to play on the phenomenal sounding audio system (featuring JBL 2135 speakers). On my recent visit there one customer had brought a Modern Jazz Quartet Live in Japan album from 1966, then pulled out the concert program to show us as he had attended the gig while still a student. (This kind of thing happens often in Japanese jazz joints, and is always wonderful!)
While the menu is still a bit limited (you can order food from the Chinese joint downstairs, and there is lunch available on Saturdays) the bar has a unique take on the ‘bottle keep’ system that is still common in Japan. Customers can bring their own preferred bottle of liquor and pay a one time ¥5000 (about USD 45) to store it on the shelf. On each subsequent visit there is only a ¥1000 charge for ice and and a mixer.
There have been all too many jazz spot closures the last few years, for both predictable but also unexpected reasons. Having ‘R’ take on a successor role to the historic Charmant is great news, and while it can’t capture the charm of that historic shop, it very capably fills in the void in the northern areas of Tokyo.
Open Thursdays 1800-2200, Fri & Sat 1100-2200
Aries is a very local jazz live-house in the back streets of Ueno. By “local” I mean both the artists and customers; Aries feels like a place that people walk from their homes to. It’s a small square room with all the seats facing the stage, which is on the left when you walk in.
The nightly schedule almost always features vocal-led groups but in a variety of genres, not just standards and lite-bossa covers. Jazz spots like this are totally authentic and completely unpretentious, just some local artists and regulars enjoying music and drinks.
Every Swing is a small friendly club in the barren back streets east of Ueno Station. This is not an area full of music so it’s all the more welcome to have someplace representing the jazz army.
There is no set genre at Every Swing so expect to hear anything from West Indian steel drums to chanson here. Every Tuesday is the “Service” Jam Session night, open to all levels from beginner upwards. At only ￥1000 it’s a good deal as many jam sessions in Tokyo charge a lot more to join. The crowd here is usually a bit younger than many other jazz clubs, which is kind of nice. The usual drinks and light snacks are available, and check out some nice photos at their website here
Aketa No Mise (“The Open Store”) is out in west Tokyo, not far from Nishi-Ogikubo station. The Ogikubo area was well known in the 1960s as a gathering spot for hippies, artists, political dissidents and drop-outs and you can get a taste of this scene at Aketa no Mise. It’s a great basement jazz club with no pretensions or care for current trends, a space solely concerned with creative expression via music. The live acts they book are on the experimental/free side, which is unfortunately all too rare these days. Owner Aketagawa-san, who runs the ocarina-shop across the street as well as overseeing the Aketa Discs independent label, keeps the schedule diverse and interesting; last time I dropped by in the afternoon there was a trio rehearsal going on between a tympani drummer, electric guitarist and a female vocalist.
That’s not to say there aren’t some unpleasant things about the club. It’s down in the basement and as a result is very dark and damp, and the cans of Sapporo beer were kind of warm..never acceptable, even a place devoted to free jazz! But those minor points aside, I love this joint. There are too many jazz clubs around Tokyo that feature the same vocal + quartet singing the same standards, night after night. Knowing there is a place like Aketa no Mise still in business is comforting to all jazz fans who want to keep the spirit of improvisation alive.
Charmant opened in 1955 and certainly looks and feels its age. It’s a tiny bar on the second floor of a rickety building in Nippori, right at the edge of the Yanaka Ginza Shopping Street, a very old part of working-class Tokyo that is filled with traditional mom & pop shops (and some hip coffee houses, a sign of gentrification perhaps?)
The original owner died last year, but 4 years earlier had sold the bar and all its records to a long-time customer, dentist Ishioka-san. Ishioka-san is some kind of character; he immediately greets you in loud English while pouring drinks, dancing to the music and sneaking a smoke or two. He told me he still owns his dental clinic so only opens the bar three nights a week (Wed, Fri, Sat) for now as a hobby. In addition to the usual liquor he keeps the bar stocked with some rather rare and expensive bourbon, and kindly gave us a free shot on our first visit.
The music in Charmant is loud so don’t go in expecting lengthy conversations. Ishioka-san told three Japanese customers, clearly first-timers, that ‘sorry, I can’t turn down the volume’ when they requested such. Now THAT’S a jazz bar owner. The music is all vinyl, all classic and modern jazz. A regular customer in there told me on Friday nights after 8pm, some of the regulars will come by with vinyl to put on the bar, which Ishioka-san will then play. It’s that kind of joint; the music comes first.
Words can’t capture the magic feeling inside an old jazz bar like this. If you’re at all a fan of old jazz joints then Charmant is a must-visit. You’ll easily feel yourself transported back to 1961 when Art Blakey and his Jazz Messengers visited the bar while on tour in Japan. Check pics of Charmant here at Tokyo Jazz Joints.
Maze is a very hip soul music bar located right in the middle of the Koenji Pal Arcade ‘shoutengai’ (shopping street). Morita-san the owner has been running it for about 30 years, while also operating the soba noodle shop down on the first floor. He doesn’t have many DJ nights these days but still has a nice vinyl collection and is even open to regulars putting on their iPod playlists, as long as the music is funky.
It’s a fairly large bar, dark and with an extensive liquor selection. A 1971 Soul Train DVD was playing on the big screen when I dropped by, and Morita-san was chatty and warm. Highly recommended for soul fans. And yes, it’s named after the band ‘Maze’. Open from 8pm most nights.
Opened in 2010, Juha is a small but lively coffee shop about 5 minutes walk from Nishi-Ogikubo Station on the JR Chuo Line. It’s named after a film by Finnish Director Aki Kaurismaki, (there is a huge Karurismaki poster on the wall as well as photo book on the shelf).
The music was random but excellent; some mid-period Coltrane playing when we walked in then all the way to Anita O’Day after that, some hard-bop by Cedar Walton on vinyl followed those up. I couldn’t see the collection as it’s hidden somewhere behind the counter but based on these choices the owners obviously know their jazz.
Juha has great (if expensive) coffee and a very warm & friendly vibe; no coincidence that most of the customers on a Saturday afternoon were ladies. It’s a nice addition to the jazz cafe scene.
Jazz Snack まつ (Matsu) is a gem, a classic old spot that takes you back to the days when Japanese cities had small jazz cafes like this in almost every neighborhood. Even by Japan standards Matsu is small, with 5 tiny seats at the counter and 6 more at the two tables that have virtually no space between them. The decor is vintage old Japanese jazz joint; a rickety shelf full of old albums; posters for events past and present, a chalkboard with ‘Today’s Food Special’ written perhaps ten years previously, and most notably a large blown up photo of John Coltrane live in concert. The photo has a diagonal slash on it, the victim of an angry street gangster that the owner refused to pay protection money to back when that sort of thing was much more common in Japan.
Amidst all the clutter of dishes, bottles and posters there is a turntable behind the counter, and a TV where they show some concert DVDs at times. The music wasn’t loud, as although Matsu is a very old spot, it has never been a standard jazz ‘kissaten’ where mainly solo men customers would sit with head down & eyes closed, listening to vintage albums at high volume. Shop owner Hirano-san from the beginning wanted a more jovial and warm atmosphere, hence the name Jazz ‘Snack’ rather than Jazz ‘Cafe’. (In Japan a ‘snack’ is a neighborhood bar where locals drink, talk and sing karaoke).
Hirano-san is a veteran of the jazz scene in Tokyo, having worked with the original incarnation of legendary live club The Pit Inn back in the late 60s and early 70s. (What his exact role was is unclear, will get more concrete details on this soon as on this visit I spoke mainly to the young college student manning the joint; Hirano-san only came by for a minute to exchange business cards, before returning to the second floor mah-johng parlor he also owns, also called ‘Matsu’). Today he is still involved in event promotion as an organizer with the Shinagawa City Jazz Festival, previously known as the Nakanobu Jazz Festival until 2018.
Matsu is going to be a joy for those who love the real old school Japanese jazz joint vibe, of which sadly there are less and less remaining. It’s living Japanese 20th century jazz culture, which is the highest recommendation I can give. Smoking is allowed so needless to say this is not a spot to linger in for those sensitive to smoke
Jazz Bar Impro is small, even by the incredibly small standards of most Japanese jazz joints. It’s on the first floor of a rickety old building down the Heiwa Kouji Yokocho alleyway next to JR Ooimachi station in Shinagawa Ward. This is the kind of alleyway that used to be found all over Tokyo, full of small drinking dens and izakaya run by the locals, sadly all too few these days. Impro has only been open for eight years but fits right in to the old school vibe of the neighborhood.
The entrance into Impro is a very low door you have to duck into, which immediately puts you next to the bar. There’s room for maybe 4 to stand and drink, with a tiny table at the back corner for a tight 3 to fit. The master Tsukahara-san is a friendly guy and will make you feel welcome even if you’re alone, though I wouldn’t recommend the place if you’re even slightly claustrophobic.
Tsukahara-san plays a mix of older and more modern jazz on both vinyl and CD, everything was solid the last time I visited, some old Django Reinhardt followed by Lee Morgan. He’s got some small snacks on the menu though nothing too elaborate; you wouldn’t come to a place like Impro for the food anyways. Impro won’t be for everyone (did I mention it’s very very tiny and cramped?) but I love the joint. It’s a time warp to Showa-era Japan, where every station area had dozens of standing bars like this. Open from 8pm – midnight most nights.
See photos of Impro here at Tokyo Jazz Joints.com.
トムネコゴ (Tomunekogo) is a small, cozy and rustic cafe alongside the entrance to Inokashira-Koen in the Kichijoji area of western Tokyo. It’s located on the first floor of an old Showa-Era (postwar) apartment building that faces the park, although the cafe itself only opened 3 years ago.
Going through the narrow entrance you have to squeeze left in front of the tiny kitchen (right away you realize this was once an actual apartment) and into the seating area of the cafe. The decor is wooden and antique; you’ll notice in the center of the room, in front of the bookcase filled with records, a beautiful old gas heater with a kettle of of tea placed on top. It’s one of those little touches that always makes a cafe more welcoming.
The music is kept a softer volume than many other cafes; the owner says he wants the atmosphere to stay mellow with quiet conversation and mid-tempo jazz, so even though there’s alcohol on the menu don’t come here for a rowdy session. On our visit there he was playing some MJQ, then a Ben Webster ballads album, both of which sounded perfect in that space.
The entry has a small bookshelf and wooden ‘Open’ sign easily visible from the road along the park, just one minute walk from Inokashira-Park station on the Keio Line. See here for more pics of Tomunekogo.
Meg is a small cafe/club in Kichijoji, western Tokyo that is a vibrant part of the local scene. There’s live music almost every night of the week, plus jazz album/cd trading sessions, vocalist jam session nights, and workshops given by owner Terashima Yasukuni. Terashima-san has written several books on jazz in Japan, which you can buy at Meg. He also puts out a yearly compilation CD “YT Presents Jazz Bar…” which is worth a listen.
What you notice immediately when going into Meg are the huge red speakers that dominate the back wall. I’m not an audiophile, so have no idea if the shape makes any difference or is just for style, but the sound in Meg is awesome. You rarely hear such crisp, clean sound like this anywhere in Tokyo.
Meg is a classic jazz kissaten in a great area for music wandering. I highly recommend spending an hour or two there some afternoon before exploring the Kichijoji nightlife. Photos of Meg are over at Tokyo Jazz Joints.
SOMETIME Kichijoji (they use all caps..) opened in 1975 and still packs people in every night of the week. As the name says it’s in Kichijoji, an area in Western Tokyo that has long been known for being a jazz ‘town’, though there are fewer joints now than there were in the golden days of the 60s and 70s.
SOMETIME though is without a doubt the center of the Kichijoji jazz community, a great place to dive into the local scene. There are usually different Japanese musicians playing every night, all genres featured. The official name ‘Piano Hall SOMETIME’ refers more to the look of the place rather than about the music. The big black grand piano does dominate the center of the room (there is no stage), but it’s not at all a ‘piano bar’. Customers sit at the counter around the open-space, or look down on the musicians from seats in the loft.
There’s a real speakeasy feel to the place when it’s full and the musicians are out on the floor tearing it up. Even better for the poorer/cheaper jazz fan is the live charge. Gigs can be as cheap as ￥1600, and that covers you for all the sets in the evening (unlike many big-name chain clubs.) SOMETIME is a great place to kick off a night in Kichijoji, and I’d recommend the Sunday afternoon lunch sessions or even just cafe time as well. Photos of SOMETIME over at Tokyo Jazz Joints.
Funky is the upstairs “Bar” part of the Bar & Kitchen Funky. It’s a sleek, dark room with a beautiful bar and great food available from the restaurant downstairs. Don’t expect too much (if any..) “funky” music here though, it’s more of a late-night wind-down vibe, great spot to end a longer Kichijoji night at. Expensive so bring enough dough. Great pics in the gallery on their homepage.
Funky is part of the Mugi group, owners of Sometime Piano hall in Kichijoji and several other bars and eateries.
Slow Boat is a beautiful neighborhood jazz cafe opened only in 2019, on the first floor of an otherwise residential house in Ota-ward in southern Tokyo. Owner Tsunahara-san built the place with the first floor specifically designed to function as a cafe, a rectangular room that can seat about 12 at a couple tables and a small counter.
The sound is superb at Slow Boat with the volume at just the right level on customized JBL4331 speakers. Tsunahara-san has a giant collection of roughly 2000 records and 1000+ cds, covering most jazz genres. While I was visiting he was playing a mix of things from some old Gerry Mulligan, to showing and playing for me the record that gave the shop its name, The Ted Brown Sextet’s ‘On A Slow Boat To China’. Tsunahara-san is now retired but had been a long time jazz kissaten customer, collecting matchbooks from many of the shops he’s visited throughout Japan over the years, and seems to know many of the kissaten owners. He clearly put a lot of thought and care into making Slow Boat feature all the best parts of jazz kissa, without being overbearing or difficult for first-timers to enjoy.
It’s often said (including by me) that jazz cafes can feel like the extension of the owner’s home, and that the vibe is like being in their living room or basement music room at times. This is doubly true at Slow Boat, not only because of the ‘house’ factor, but decor such as the gorgeous, Korean-looking chest of drawers that sits between the giant speakers, and where Tsunahara-san charmingly puts a tiny flag saying ‘A’ or ‘B’ to indicate which side of the record is playing.
Although not in central Tokyo, its location only a few minutes walk from Yukigaya-Otsuka Station on the Tokyu Ikegami line makes it fairly easy to get to, especially for those who commute between central Tokyo and Yokohama or further south. Slow Boat is highly recommended for either coffee or a couple drinks before closing time at 2100.
Good Italian food at this restaurant/bar/club. The schedule on the website shows the genre of each night (vocal, fusion, Latin, etc) which is helpful if you are not familiar with the artists. Strings is a good way to start a jazz-bar crawl night in Kichijoji.
Birdland is a beautifully decorated cafe and bar located in the north-east part of Tokyo, just a short skip from Kita-Senju station. This is an old, working-class neighborhood that is showing signs of some gentrification with new wine bars and cafes, but Birdland evokes an older era despite being open only since 1989.
The owner Morikawa-san is an incredibly friendly guy; he let us stay in the place between 6 and 7pm, usually his break time as he prepares for the evening ‘bar’ session, and chatted the whole time with us as we took pictures and drank some beers. The feel of the place is almost European, and that extends to the excellent selection of whiskey and draft beer (Guinness & Belgian Vedette, very rare in a jazz bar). There are also a good two dozen jazz portaits hanging on the wall along the right side, be sure to look at some of the smaller ones as you’ll find some real surprises.
Birdland has live music about two or three times a week, usually musicians that are friends of Morikawa-san but also some occasional foreign guests. Straight ahead modern jazz, nothing too free and thankfully not too many vocalists. The ￥3000 music charge covers the whole evening. During cafe and bar time there’s an extensive collection of vinyl behind the bar that Morikawa-san plays from; Grant Green’s ‘Matador’ was on when we entered.
Every jazz spot has its own unique feel and Birdland is no exception. You’ll feel instantly welcome there as you settle in for a leisurely coffee of beer, and with the large windows offering plenty of natural light, it’s the perfect spot for people put off by some of the more subterranean jazz joints around town. Photos of Birdland here at Tokyo Jazz Joints.
What an unreal treat Garo was to visit. It was first opened in 1967 by the very welcoming Mr. and Mrs Ono in a small two story building fairly close to Mukogaoka-Yuen station on the Odakyu Railway Line (about 20 minutes west of Shinjuku). The space is a tiny square with room for about 8 people, maybe 10 max if you crowd in.
I had heard about Garo for the first time about two or three years ago but had not met anyone who’d actually been there. There’s no website, though the bar was featured once in Japanese jazz magazine Jazz Hihyo in 2016, giving it a little exposure. When I finally made the trek out on the Odakyu Line to see it for myself I was instantly smitten. Here’s a small taste:
Not the best video ever but you can see pretty much half the joint there. 100% authentic Showa-era jazz bar perfection! Mrs. Ono played Coltrane, Miles, Art Pepper and Mingus albums while I was there, all the while chatting with me and a regular customer about the area back when they opened 50 years back, jazz bars around town and the ‘dying jazz cafe culture’ (very familiar refrain from jazz joint owners).
Garo is everything that I adore about the old jazz culture of Japan. Sincere, unpretentious and completely in its own world, with not the barest concession to 2017 (the bathroom is a hole in the ground with a plastic modern seat cover on top.) Who knows how long Garo will stay open so get there ASAP for a night of old-style Japanese jazz bar heaven. Pics of Garo up on Tokyo Jazz Joints
This is as old school a jazz bar as you will find in the Tokyo metro area. 直立猿人 (Chokuritsu Enjin = Pithecanthropus Erectus) opened in 1976 and certainly shows its age. Old concert posters, dusty album covers, tattered seats. The master recently retired due to poor health and turned the joint over to a new manager who maintains the steady flow of old vinyl on the turntable. Jaki Byard, Hank Mobley and Lee Morgan on the night I was there. There’s about 2500 records in the cabinets that line the back wall of the bar.
There are faded, torn food menus on the wall but don’t try ordering anything, they stopped serving food years ago. Amazingly, the bartender told me that they still sometimes cram in 2 or 3 musicians for live music; as you can see from the photos on the web page those must be very intimate performances.
Chokuritsu Enjin is the kind of jazz bar that simply doesn’t exist anymore anywhere in the world, EXCEPT for Japan. I recommend the trek out to distant, gritty Kamata for a few drinks here, followed by some yakitori at one of the numerous izakaya on ‘Bourbon Road’ along the tracks. Photos here at tokyojazzjoints.com
Jazz & Coffee Swan first opened in 1965 and still retains every bit of ambiance from that golden age of jazz cafe culture, right down to the large portrait of John Coltrane hanging in the front corner near the door. Located in distant Shin-Tokorozawa just over the border of Tokyo within Saitama Prefecture, Swan is a place spoken of often by jazz kissaten customers I have met around town, referred to as one of the few remaining cafes from the old days.
Swan feels fairly roomy; the space is rectangular shaped with the bar along the right side and a small area by the back for live performances (about twice a week, with occasional jam sessions on Sundays). There are a few tables along the left wall, and some seats at the counter; if full the place could fit about 25 or so. Behind the bar are about 5000+ original records, partially hidden by one of those sliding shelve units with bottles of booze and glasses stacked on it. First Bud Powell, then Art Pepper was playing when I went in.
The current owner Sutou-san is a genial host; he was happy to chat with me about the joint and other jazz spots around western Tokyo and Saitama, answering all my questions and introducing me to one of the regulars (shout out to Mr. Hiroo there for buying me a beer.) Sutou-san took over Swan from the original owner about 15 years ago, inheriting all the records and keeping the place pretty much as is. Being much younger than many jazz cafe owners though he’s fully engaged online with both a Twitter account and Facebook page, making it easy to get updates about events and opening times.
Swan really does have it all; the records, the booze, the conversation, and that gorgeous Coltrane on the wall. It’s well worth the trip out west for an afternoon or evening there. See more pics of Swan over at Tokyo Jazz Joints.
Gi is a tiny dining bar located just about 10 minutes walk from Musashi Kosugi station in Kawasaki. It first opened 15 years ago but current manager Jin-san has been running it for about 3 years now, with an expanded food & bar menu. There’s an occasional live gig once or twice a month but mostly just jazz CDs playing in the background. When I went in Jin-san had on Sonny Rollins’ ‘Way Out West’. There’s a rack by the back wall with a lot of CDs, mostly classic stuff on Blue Note and some old jump-blues/R&B type stuff.
Musashi Kosugi is not the most glamorous part of town but if you live along the Tokyu Toyoko line then it’s worth stopping off there to check out Gi, Muse or a couple of the other joints around the station. Gi opens right out into the street so is a nice place to sip a drink or two during the spring and summer. Great speakers in the bathroom!
Opens from 1730.
Coming out the station go to Bus Stop #3, take the bus bound for Shin-Yuri Green Town. Get off at the 6th stop, Hakusan 4-Chome (白山4丁目)
Sugar Shack Soul Brothers Bar in Kawasaki is the real deal, a place where soul music fans can sit for hours with drinks and groovy tunes. Owner Ishikawa-san had the bar in Yokohama for over 18 years then moved to Kawasaki in 2009. He’s been involved in the local music scene for years and takes pride in having hosted many visiting US soul acts over the years.
The bar is sleek and cool with a big window, and two well placed video screens to show what’s playing. Ishikawa-san and his staff were quick to chat with me about all kinds of music, making it an instantly warm vibe. Lots of classic 70s & 80s soul vinyl with some groovy jazz thrown in too; I loved it. Bonus points for the bonsai plants by the window.
Kawasaki may not have the best reputation but there are certainly some good music bars scattered around, and Sugar Shack is near the top of that list.
Sadly, 10×10 closed in 2014. A neighboring cafe owner told me that Takeyama-san closed the shop to take care of her grandchildren..I hope they appreciate her Max Roach records.
Hakuraku (白楽) 10×10 is a hidden gem of a cafe. It’s in a residential part of Yokohama city (but only about 25 mins from Shibuya in Tokyo, on the Tokyu Toyoko Line) yet has regular live events at night. The lovely Takeyama-san has been the owner for the past 40 years. She’s one of the world’s top Max Roach collectors; there are portraits and photos of the great drummer/composer all around the cafe, all drawn by the wonderfully named “Asobi-nin no Kin-san” (遊び人のKINSAN)
I only visited 10×10 a few times but Takeyama-san always treated me like an honored guest. When I left last time she gave me a copy of Kin-san’s book of essays and drawings about life and jazz as a present, proving yet again that jazz cafe & bar owners are generally among the kindest people you will ever meet. 10×10 is worth the trip out on the Tokyoko Line; after the cafe you can stroll along Hakuraku’s famous old-town shopping street, and maybe grab a meal at the legendary TanTan Ramen shop.
Bitches Brew is yet another only-in-Japan kind of place. It’s a tiny sqaure room on the second floor of a building in the fairly residential area of Hakuraku, north Yokohama. There is live music every night, but as there is no stage, the lack of space means the audience is an active part of the gig. You are literally right next to the musicians as they play.
BB was opened 10 years ago by the chatty & friendly Seiichi Sugita. Sugita-san had a long career as a photo-journalist, shooting some of the biggest jazz names at festivals in the US and Europe. He’s also quite the audiophile and has a vacuum-tube system in the place for music in between live sets. (Audiophiles can read about all his equipment up on his homepage.)
Sigita-san takes pride in putting on live shows every night with musicians who make the trek down from Tokyo just to perform there. I was stunned to hear that free-jazz legend Akira Sakata plays there regularly; imagine the power of hearing someone like him in such a small room. Bitches Brew is place for real music heads, and it’s well worth the trip to Hakuraku to check out a show there. Photos of Bitches Brew over at Tokyo Jazz Joints
Downbeat in Yokohama is one of the classic jazz spots in the entire Kanto (Tokyo Metropolitan) area. It first opened in 1956 and is now on its third owner, then young and friendly Yoshihisa-san who took over the joint in April 2017. (He assured me he’s keeping the place as is, and even adding to the 3700+ jazz records already behind the counter.)
DB is a hardcore cafe/bar where the music comes first; the volume is loud and in your face, making conversation difficult if not impossible in the main area by the speakers on the left, though the seats on the right side by the bar counter are a bit removed and thus quieter. (The bar seats are also non-smoking) The music selections are varied; you’ll hear anything from classic swing to Pharoah Sanders and all in between.
It’s kind of difficult to capture in words the vibe of such a classic old Japanese jazz joint, with the faded posters and dark lighting. Check the pictures here for a taste, but be sure to visit there at least once. It’s a treasure for jazz fans and a place that captures the old time port style of Yokohama.
DB is in the historical port side block neighborhood of Noge, across from the main Sakuragicho-station front plaza. Lots of little drinking dens, old karaoke pubs and some other jazz joints to visit around here if you have a night.
Kamome means “seagull” in Japanese; it’s an apt name for a venue in the port town of Yokohama. It’s a great new-ish restaurant club in the historic but recently downtrodden Kannai neighborhood, not far from Chinatown or the baseball stadium. There’s live music every night with a really eclectic mix of styles..be sure to check the schedule (and have a Japanese reading friend confirm the genre of the evening) before going. The food is very good here and all the seats face the stage for the most part. The gigs usually end about 10pm so Kamome is a good first stop on a jazz-hopping evening in Kannai.
A reminder: there is no smoking inside many (not all) establishments in Kanagawa prefecture, to which Yokohama belongs. Certain bars still allow it but many places with food do not.
Chigusa is the the gold standard of jazz cafes in Japan. It was first opened in 1933 in the rough, portside streets of Noge in Yokohama by Mamoru Yoshida (1913-1994). The history of Chigusa is a long and fascinating one, you can read about in English in this Japan Times article, or in Japanese on the home page.
The current Chigusa is a small, square room with all seats facing the enormous speakers set in front of the back wall. There are hand drawn portraits and photos on the walls from Yoshida-san’s personal collection, and a small gallery space exhibiting more from through the years. The music in Chigusa ranges from old-time swing to modern, experimental jazz, almost all on vinyl. They welcome requests as well so have a long look at the record ‘menu’ they offer and write down what you’d like to hear. The volume is crisp and loud; don’t come to Chigusa to have a lengthy conversation, this is a place to listen to great music. We’re lucky to still have it with us. Photos of Chigusa at Tokyo Jazz Joints.
Herbie is the kind of jazz bar you stumble upon randomly on the way home some night and end up staying in for three hours. Located in unfashionable Machida (about 25mins south west of Shinjuku on the express Odakyu Line), it’s a tiny basement bar that seats 20 people max, though it’s rarely that full. The room is a small rectangle with a mix of counter seats and 4-seat tables, but is more suited for quiet drinks & jazz time rather than a noisy get-together.
Owner Fukuoka-san is a cool cat with a taste for whiskey; there are 75 different brands of whiskey, bourbon and rye behind the bar. The music is anything from classic jazz from the 50s up to current releases; last time there I heard some 1990s fusion back to back with Horace Silver. Although you wouldn’t think it, Herbie does host the occasional live gig; check the website for the schedule. It’s a fairly dark room and may be slightly claustrophobic for some, but it’s pretty much a perfect neighborhood jazz bar to hit after dinner or for a late night-cap. Look for a picture of Herbie on the wall near the door, otherwise it’s mainly Miles on the walls.
More pics of Herbie here at Tokyo Jazz Joints.
Located in the in historic Bashamichi area of downtown Yokohama, Airegin is one of the best live clubs in the Tokyo Metro Area. Owned by the friendly Umemoto-san,who took over from the original owners in 1980, Airegin has since 1972 been one of the key spots in Yokohama for live jazz, particularly for those groups and musicians on the more experimental side.
The history inside the club is remarkable, with a who’s who of Japanese jazz legends like Yamashita Yousuke and Hayashi Eiichi having played their regulalry for years, but with also an incredible number of overseas musicians like Mal Waldron and Woody Shaw having done gigs. Airegin has also for many years been the spot to see some of Europe’s top jazz musicians (the website currently features rotating photos that include Peter Brotzmann from Germany and Han Bennink from Holland, though of course during the pandemic there have not been any acts visiting from overseas).
The space is a cosy room that can seat up to 30 fairly comfortably, though seating arrangements can change depending on the lineup of any given gig. The decor is everything you expect and love about classic old Japanese jazz joints, with the walls covered in old posters and framed portraits. Tables are small so be ready to sit very close to others in the audience. The live charge is usually ￥2500 (about USD22) though can be higher for special events; check Umemoto-san’s blog for the updated schedules and live rates. (Note: the website is a little confusing and sometimes not updated right away, so check the twitter feed for more up to the minute announcements)
Yokohama has a long history with jazz and Airegin remains perhaps the best place to experience that history, while also listening to cutting edge live music. Now Non-Smoking during all gigs.
Jazz House Five Star Records is a unique little place in the Noge neighborhood, next to Sakuragicho station in Yokohama. This is an area that still has some of the rough and tumble vibe of old Yokohama, a place packed with small drinking dens and several jazz bars. I cam across FSR by chance while wandering around Noge one Saturday afternoon.
FSR is an independent record label run by Mitsukoshi Yoshie-san, a 50ish lady who speaks a mile a minute and knows the entire history of jazz in Yokohama. Before I could finish my coffee I had pages of notes with details about the area and all the bar owners, as well as the “Yokohama Jazz Association” (横浜ジャズ協会) that puts on various events around town.
The small building has a studio up top where brothers Pat and Joe La Barbera and have recently recorded CDs while in Japan (Mitsukoshi-san kindly gave me free copies, they’re great.) The first floor bar/cafe seats about 12 people and there’s room for monthly live events alongside occasional CD release parties. There’s the usual coffee and tea plus alcohol, and a book shelf with magazines and jazz guides customers can flip through while drinking.
FSR should be one of your first stops on a Yokohama jazz night; the community is lucky to have Mitsukoshi-san around to keep things vibrant.
Noise is one of the more unique jazz cafes still around. It opened in 1980 as the sister shop to the original Noise in Shimo-Kitazawa, sadly now closed. The location of Noise is truly a surprise, as it’s on the 4th floor of the otherwise unremarkable Jorna department store right next to Machida Station. I’ve visited over 175 jazz establishments in Japan but this was the first one I’ve been to that’s literally inside a department store.
Noise is also noticeably larger than the average jazz cafe, seating a comfortable 40+ customers. It’s a large square room with a kitchen along the back, a long counter, and tables spread all around, with some book shelves and jazzy knick-knacks in between. (Keep a lookout for the jazz coffee can.) The jazz portraits, photos and album jackets on the wall are particularly cool, especially the Weather Report mural in the back corner.
On Saturdays and Sundays (and occasionally mid-week) there are frequent live shows starting at either lunch time or 6pm, featuring some of Tokyo’s finest jazz musicians so be sure to check the schedule on their home page before dropping by. Machida doesn’t always have the best reputation for nightlife but if you’re nearby Noise is perfect for the first stop on a Machida area jazz joint hop. Closes at 8:30 so get there early. More photos of Noise here at Tokyo Jazz Joints.
Ad-Lib is an old club in Yoshida-cho, a block of dingy streets between Kannai and Noge in Yokohama. Live music nightly with Saturday afternoon cafe/record listening time. It’s a no-frills jazz & whiskey joint, down to earth and authentic.
Little John is a well known jazz bar/tiny club in the Yokohama scene, yet its erratic opening hours can make it tough to visit. It’s a small rectangular room with about 15 seats and a back wall ‘stage’, another 6 or so seats at the back counter bar. There’s live music often but not nightly so you can drop by for a drink after 7 most days. It also takes part in most of the local Yokohama-based jazz events/weekends based on the posters hung around the room.
Even after finally entering the joint for the first time (for a gig as part of the 2015 Yokohama Jazz Promenade) Little John remains a bit of a mystery. Master Furukawa-san is friendly and chatty, but not the actual owner. He didn’t really share the whole story with me but from what I gathered the owner is kind of ill and doesn’t come by much, leaving it in the hands of Furukawa-san. He assured me he’s there daily at 7 but several times I’ve been by and they were closed..the story seems incomplete, I’ll keep investigating.
Regardless, Little John has that dark, divey old school jazz bar feel to it that many customers will enjoy, a place to run into to escape from a cold rainy night. You can easily make a night of it in Yoshida-cho visiting Little John, Jazz Ad-lib, Rock Bar Sid and some of the other music bars along those back streets.
Marshmallow is a lovely new(ish) cafe located right in the heart of Chinatown, in Yokohama. It was opened 2+ years ago by Mr. & Mrs Joufu, long time Yokohama residents and previously owners of a men’s clothing shop, but also the purveyors of the Marshmallow Jazz record label in Japan. Marshmallow Records has over the last 40 years recorded numerous jazz musicians such as Chet Baker and Duke Jordan at sessions both in Japan and around the world. (Scroll down the main web page to see the full list of releases.)
Joufu-san closed his men’s clothing store in 2015 and opened the cafe on the second floor of a building on West Gate Street in Chinatown, just seconds away from where he was born 70 years ago. The cafe is long rectangular shape, with several dozen gorgeous jazz musician portraits and calendars covering almost all the wall space. There is a mixture of vinyl and CDs from his personal collection, including Marshmallow releases of course. However there are frequent afternoons set aside for customers to bring in their own records and put them on. There are also periodic afternoon or evening listening sessions devoted to one artist, hosted by various fan clubs.
Joufu-san speaks English and is happy to chat about his label and about the jazz scene around Japan so don’t hesitate to pop in for a coffee if you’re in Chinatown; Marshmallow is perfect spot for a 90-min or so rest stop during a Yokohama day out. Open from 1-8pm, closed Mondays & Tuesdays.
JULY 2022: Minton House has been under threat of closure the last two years, and the owner is still in negotiations with the new land owners about how long he can stay in the building. This is a complex situation with a lot of Japanese real estate ‘grey zone’ rules, so it’s unlcear how long the shop will actually stay open. Get there while you can!
Minton House celebrated its 40th anniversary in 2015 and shows no sign of closing any time soon. It’s located just a few minutes walk from JR Ishikawacho Station in Yokohama right on the edge of Chinatown, and is a well known watering hole for both musicians and fans.
It is a long, narrow space with walls covered in old photos, paintings and flyers. Master Kawakami-san is a genial and mellow host who keeps the music flowing from his large collection of vinyl behind the bar on the left as you walk in. You’re likely to hear almost anything as last time I was in he played in order Grant Green, Jack DeJohnette, Pat Metheny, some female vocalist whose name I didn’t get, Eric Dolphy and then some big-band swing.
Everything sounded great on the huge speakers at the back of the room, but if you’re sitting towards the back then be prepared for the volume; those seats aren’t for conversing in. One way I always judge jazz joints is how easy it is to ‘lose time’ while sitting in there; many times at Minton House I’ve planned to pop in for a drink or two and ended up leaving four hours later as it has just the right combination of music, ambience, menu (Guinness AND Orion beer, lots of whiskeys) to keep you trapped.
Minton House opens at 5pm most days so is perfect for either an early drink or a post-Chinatown meal nightcap. It’s likely the best jazz bar in Yokohama, let’s hope it sticks around another 40 years. See pictures of Minton House over at Tokyo Jazz Joints.
Yoidore Hakushaku (よいどれ伯爵-the name translates as “The Drunken Earl or The Drunken Count”, take your pick. Locals just call it “Yoidore”) is classic old basement joint in jazzy Kannai, Yokohama. It’s got a very vintage sense of style..I was reminded of my old neighbor Mrs. Bodenheimer’s s apartment in Brooklyn, which will make sense to some of you..Soft sofas around the room along side a bar, with the musicians up against the back wall. Owner Sato-san is usually behind the bar and up for a chat between sets, keeping the vibe very friendly (not always the case in live venues..)
It’s vocal groups almost every night at Yoidore; don’t go here expecting to hear any Pharoah Sanders covers. It’s great value for the usual 3000 yen entry as there are three sets nightly from 7:30. 10 bonus points for serving Guinness!
First is an old-school Yokohama jazz bar with a vibe and sound all its own. It’s more spacious than your average jazz joint in the Tokyo Metro Area, with room for about 30-35 customers, and space in front for live sets. There’s a baby grand piano in the corner right as you enter and a drum set to the right before you get to the tables and long counter bar along the left wall.
Mr. & Mrs. Yamazaki have been running First for more than thirty years and the bar itself dates back to 1968. It’s a bit dark and the magazines in the back corner are way out of date, but the regular customers are not just old, solitary jazz fans; First is happy to host small drinking parties and doesn’t mind even when they get a bit rowdy, though I prefer it when people are alone and concentrating on the music.
The vinyl selection is all modern jazz (some superb Joe Henderson was playing on my last visit) with a slant towards more ‘moody’ records, making it always feel like midnight in First even when you’re there in the late afternoon. First used to have about one live gig a week but recently have increased to about two or three per week. Thankfully, the live gigs seem to include a variety of styles and not just the usual vocal quartet/quintets you get at a lot of other places; check the website for the schedule before stopping by.
First is one of my favorite places to stop by in Yokohama, an all around great jazz joint. Check more pics here at Tokyo Jazz Joints.
Nefertiti lives up to its very lofty name as it’s one of the finest jazz spots in the entire Tokyo metro area. The owner Kurita-san is an extremely friendly host; he is an ex-teacher who opened the cafe after retiring several years back. (He has a long history with jazz and told us some hysterical stories of working in a ‘jazz curry’ shop when younger, then meeting his wife there as she was a regular customer).
The joint is quite a bit larger than the average jazz spot with plenty of seats and a small stage toward the back window where there are live sets once or twice a week. There’s a lot of natural light too, a nice change from the usual dark and dingy jazz bar feel. But by far the main attraction in Nefertiti is the ridiculously good sound system; Kurita-san proudly showed us several profiles of Nefertiti in Japanese audio magazines. (For those who know, here are the specs: JBL S4700, fet cr-nf equalizr amp MODEL FET99 / marantz SUPER AUDIO CD PLAYER SA-14S1 / Stereo control center C-200L)
Kurtia-san has a huge collection with some especially rare experimental/free jazz albums; I was really surprised and impressed to see a live Don Pullen bootleg album from the 70s just casually lying on a table. It’s not just heavy free jazz on the system though; the first record he put on for us to hear the audio system was some fusion-guitar from the 80s and there are plenty of jazz vocal albums hanging up above the seats so you’ll get all styles of music here.
Nefertiti is a bit of a trek as it’s a little far from Masuo Station but it’s more than worth the time it takes to get there. Opening hours may be a bit flexible so if you’re planning on going for a bit of a session then good idea to call or send a message ahead of time. See pics of Nefertiti over at Tokyo Jazz Joints.
Jazz Spot Candy is a gem, one of the finest jazz joints in the entire Tokyo metro area. It opened in 1976, then moved to its current location in 2002 and has been run since the beginning by the ebullient and kind Hayashi-san.
It’s a small room but does not feel as claustrophobic as many other jazz spots due to its high ceiling and natural light. There are a few tables and some bar counter seats, with the right wall dominated by Hayashi-san’s impressive and varied collection of vinyl. She’s happy to take requests and talk about the music or anything else; within minutes of being there we were trading stories about how we first came to love this music. (For Hayashi-san, it was working in an electronics store as a teenager and hearing John Coltrane play on the radios and stereos.)
The left wall of the room acts as a ‘stage’ for weekend live shows, usually featuring more experimental/improvisational groups. Hayashi-san has good connections with both American and European musicians (the late, great Billy Bang was a regular visitor), as well as local ‘free jazz’ players. Cafe and bar time though you’ll hear any and all genres; during my visit Hayashi-san played B.B. King & Diane Schur, Jack DeJohnette, then some heavy Norwegian improv group.
I was so happy to finally find Jazz Spot Candy, it’s now firmly in my Top Ten Jazz Joint ranking. See good pics of Candy here at Tokyo Jazz Joints.